Veterans say thanks by building new garden

Ellen Vessels, center, the GIFT Garden program coordinator, helps veterans, including Tim Chappell, right, and Clarence Mims, left, build gardening beds to plant their own vegetable gardens at the Sunshine Inn at 4155 NW 13th Street in Gainesville, Fla.

Erica Brough/Gainesville Sun
Published: Tuesday, April 9, 2013 at 8:40 p.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, April 9, 2013 at 8:40 p.m.

U.S. Army veteran Tim Chappell stood atop a truck bed filled with soil Tuesday at the Sunshine Inn, shoveling it over the edge into a garden bed alongside Ellen Vessels of Florida Organic Growers.

Below them, a few more veterans who live at the inn on Northwest 13th Street helped transfer soil while Clarence Mims, yet another Army veteran, raked the soil that had already been dumped into one of four wooden beds they had built earlier that day.

Mims, who was among the six or so veterans who helped set up the garden beds Tuesday, has been staying at the inn for about a month.

"I've got a big puzzle to put together," he said of his life. "It's not easy, but I'm trying."

Tuesday marked the beginning of the Sunshine Inn's new vegetable garden, a piece of a larger project initiated by the veterans who live there to spruce up the place's landscape.

The Sunshine Inn, which is owned by the Alachua County Housing Authority, provides transitional housing for homeless veterans. Fifteen veterans live there, and it has space for up to 20 residents, said Dale Elzie, who supervises the inn's housing program.

The budding vegetable garden is one step in this long-range beautification goal. The veterans plan to make other landscape improvements and hope to receive donations of gardening tools and other items for the project.

Those who stay at the Sunshine Inn will be able to use vegetables from their garden when they cook and will be responsible for maintaining it.

"We just wanted to do something to give back," Chappell said. "Basically...we're trying to say thank you to the people who helped us out."

Chappell, 53, has lived at the inn since mid-January and said the program helps veterans become self-sufficient again. There's some structure to life there since residents are expected to pursue work or volunteer opportunities. The place has been a godsend to him.

"We're not just laying around soaking up the air conditioning and watching TV," he said.

Travis Mitchell, community food project coordinator for FOG, said the veterans' garden is part of the organization's Gainesville Initiative for Tasty Gardens, or GIFT Gardens. Florida Organic Growers built the raised-bed garden Tuesday and will supply plants, fertilizer and other resources for free for a year.

The program has established GIFT gardens at about 270 sites in Alachua County, Mitchell said. It promotes organic, sustainable agriculture and aims to make it accessible to all people.

Ricko Turner, who has lived at the inn off and on for the past year and has a master's degree in engineering technology, said the place has provided him with peace of mind as he searches for a job.

Turner, who served in special forces for the Army during the Gulf War, couldn't help shovel soil Tuesday because he had surgery that morning related to a piece of shrapnel he has had in his stomach since 1990.

"But I said I wasn't going to miss this because there's a lot of people giving so much time and energy just to make this happen for a bunch of veterans," he said.

Turner thinks caring for the peppers, tomatoes, eggplant and other vegetables that will eventually be planted will be a therapeutic tool for veterans, giving them something proactive to do with their free time.

Linda Solis, a U.S. Navy veteran who has lived at the inn since last July, said the garden will be good for the next set of veterans who stay there.

Solis, 53, was homeless for a few years following her divorce, but now she is a full-time student at Santa Fe College. The community of veterans at the Sunshine Inn has been a comfort.

"This is not like a shelter," she said. "This is like a home."

Contact Morgan Watkins at 338-3104 or

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